Chapter 14 in: Toward a Meaningful Life – The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson by Simon Jacobson
And the living shall take to heart.
The soul never dies.
WHAT DOES DEATH REALLY MEAN?
Death: The very word strikes fear in people’s hearts. They consider death as unfathomable as it is inevitable. They are barely able to talk about it, to peer beyond the word itself and allow themselves to contemplate its true implications. This is an understandable reaction, given the fact that so many people think of life as nothing more than a state in which the human body is biologically active. But we must ask ourselves: What happens after death, if anything? What does death really mean? How should the surviving loved ones react?
The mystery of death is part of the enigma of the soul and of life itself; understanding death really means understanding life. During life as we know it, the body is vitalized by the soul; upon death, there is a separation between body and soul. But the soul continues to live on as it always has, now unfettered by the physical constraints of the body. And since a person’s true character—his goodness, virtue, and selflessness—lies in the soul, he will ascend to a higher state after fulfilling his responsibilities on earth.
Modern physics has taught us that no substance truly disappears, that it only changes form, that matter is another form of energy. A tree, for instance, might be cut down and used to build a house, or a table, or a chair. Regardless of how the form changes, the wood remains wood. And when that same wood is burned in a furnace, it again changes form, becoming an energy that gives off heat and gas. The tree, the chair, and the fire are all merely different forms of the same substance.
If this is the case with a material substance, it is even more so with a spiritual substance. The spiritual life force in man, the soul, never disappears; upon death it changes from one form to another, higher form. This may be difficult to comprehend at first, since we are so dependent on using our sensory tools to get through life. With wood, for example, it is easier to hold a chair in our hands than to grasp the heat and energy released from burning wood; and yet, the heat is no less real than the wooden chair.
As we become more attuned to spiritual thinking, we learn to relate to the reality of the spirit, and its elevation upon death and release from the body to a purer form of spiritual energy.
No matter what physical ailments might befall a person, they are just that: physical ailments. Nothing that happens to the flesh and blood diminishes in any way the soul’s power, which is purely spiritual.
So before we can truly answer the question “What is death?” we must first ask, “What is life?” By medical definition, life takes place when one’s brain and heart are functioning. Yet a person can be biologically alive but not alive at all; breathing and walking and talking are only the manifestations of what we call life. The true source of life, the energy that allows the body to function, is the soul. And the soul, because it is connected to G-d, the giver of life, is immortal. While the manifestations of life may cease upon death, the soul lives on, only in a different form.
How can a mortal human being connect to eternal life? By living a material life that fuses body and soul, thereby connecting to G-d. A person who transforms his or her body into a vehicle for love and generosity is a person who nurtures his or her eternal soul. It is by giving life to others that one becomes truly alive.
To a person for whom life consists of material gains, death indeed represents “the end.” It is the time when all fleeting achievements come to a halt. But to a person for whom life consists of spiritual gains, life never ends. The soul is fueled by the inexhaustible energy of the good deeds a person performed on earth, and it lives on materially through his or her children and the others who perpetuate his or her spiritual vitality.
We often have a difficult time distinguishing between biological life and spiritual life, or true life. We are distracted by the many material trappings of biological life. Once the soul leaves the body, though, we can clearly see how it lives on, how that soul continues to inspire people to perform good deeds, to educate and help others, to live G-dly and spiritual lives. It is when a righteous person physically departs the earth that he or she begins to exert the most profound influence.
WHAT DOES DEATH MEAN FOR THE SURVIVORS?
While death represents the soul’s elevation to a higher level, it nevertheless remains a painful experience for the survivors. At the same time, it must serve—as must all experiences in life—as a lesson; as a move forward. We must see death not as a negative force, but as an opportunity for growth.
Since death provokes such strong emotions, we must have a clear channel through which to express them, to go about healing in a constructive way. When a loved one dies, powerful and conflicting emotions are aroused: sadness over the loss and confusion about the future. The sages teach us that it would be barbaric not to mourn at all, but that we should not mourn longer than necessary.
But why should we restrain our natural pain and sadness over a loved one’s death? Grief is a feeling, after all, and feelings cannot be controlled, can they? Isn’t it wrong to set limits and repress our grief, or to try to channel it in a certain direction?
True, feelings are feelings, but we can choose whether to experience them in a destructive or productive light. The key in this case is to understand death for what it is, to celebrate its positive element. A mourner must ultimately come to realize that the soul of his or her loved one has now reached an even greater place than it occupied during its time on earth, and that it will continue to rise. It is the act of reconciling this positive realization with our grief that can turn death from a traumatic experience into a cathartic one.
To diminish our expression of grief is unhealthy and inappropriate, but to allow our grief to overwhelm us is to selfishly overlook the true meaning of death—the fact that a person’s righteous soul has found an even more righteous home.
WHAT SHOULD WE LEARN FROM DEATH?
Besides celebrating the elevation of a loved one’s soul and expressing our own grief, there is another purpose to mourning: Death is also an opportunity to examine our own lives and evaluate how we are fulfilling our divine mission. As Maimonides writes, a mourner should be “anxious and concerned and evaluate his behavior and repent.”
So remembering the soul of a loved one is a most appropriate occasion to gaze into your own soul. We all know how difficult it can be to assess one’s own behavior, and we often aren’t compelled to do so until a friend or family member has passed on. At that point, we remember the things he accomplished during his life, how he treated his family and friends, how he went out of his way to help strangers. Unfortunately, it is often the blow of a death that shakes us out of our complacency and makes us rethink our own priorities.
Because the true bond between a parent and child or a husband and wife is a spiritual one, it remains intact and strong after death. Mourning also helps us retain this bond, for the soul of a departed person, eternal and intact, watches over the people with whom she was close. Every gracious act gives her great pleasure and satisfaction, particularly when such acts are committed in a manner that she taught, whether by instruction or example.
Her soul is fully aware of what is happening to the friends and relatives she has left behind. The soul is distressed when they experience undue grief or depression, and it rejoices when they move beyond their initial pain and continue to build their lives and inspire those around them.
There is no way to replace a departed loved one, for each person is a complete world. But there is a way to help partially fill the void. When family and friends supplement their customary good deeds with further virtuous acts on behalf of the departed, they continue the work of his or her soul. By performing such acts in the memory of a loved one, we can truly build a living memorial.
Where does one find this extra energy, especially while we are experiencing grief over the death itself? Just as the body reaches into its reservoir of strength when it is under attack, the soul is able to exert hidden strength during times of great trauma, strength that we may not even have been aware of.
What are we to make of all this, this rethinking of the way we look at death? What implications are there for those of us who inhabit a reality defined by our five senses and the laws of nature, a reality in which physical life inevitably yields to a physical death?
For those who continue to look at only the outer layer of life, the physical component as circumscribed by the human body, death indeed seems to be the end of life. But we must learn to peer inside this outer layer and see the human soul, our connection to G-d and to eternity.
Deep in our hearts, we are all aware of this connection. Any thinking person who contemplates the solar system, for example, or the complexities of an atom, must come to the conclusion that our universe did not come about by some freak accident. Nor is it composed merely of physical matter; every fiber of being is pulsating with energy. Wherever we turn, we see design and purpose—the hallmark of our creator. It would follow, therefore, that each human being, too, has a purpose, as does every single event in our lives.
So even death has a purpose in our lives; even death becomes a tool for leading a more meaningful life; and even death is another form of energy.
But after all is said and done, death is still an incomprehensible, devastating experience to those who are left behind. After all the rationalizations, all the explanations, the heart still cries. And it should cry.
When friends or relatives are grieving for a loved one, do not try to explain; just be there with them. Soothe and console them, and weep with them. There is nothing one can really say, for no matter how we might try, we must accept that we often do not understand G-d’s mysterious ways.
But we should ask of G-d to finally bring the day when death shall be no more, when “death shall be swallowed up forever and G-d shall wipe the tears from every face.
Over his lifetime, the Rebbe experienced the passing of his entire family: his father, mother, two brothers, his father-in-law, and his wife. Each time, he transformed his grief into a catalyst to establish new educational and charitable institutions in their spirit. On the anniversary of their deaths each year, he would deliver talks dedicated to the goodness that they had accomplished in their lives, and initiating further activities in their memories. He was particularly affected and inspired by the death of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, his father-in-law and predecessor. The Rebbe often visited his father-in-law’s grave site several times a week, spending time in silent prayer and reading some of the thousands of letters he received seeking guidance. Indeed, the Rebbe concluded every piece of correspondence he answered with the words “I will mention it at the grave site.”
And for my own thoughts on death….. Life and the Afterlife